Those of us who work in the world of organizing, advocacy, health, or research often have access to terminology that others don’t. As the norms of cultural linguistics change, our best practices around inclusive language, or intentional recognition, evolve with the lived experiences of the people who must be heard in their desire to define themselves.
Our privilege to be at the forefront of these movements allows us to choose our wording carefully, culling the words and phrases that might lead to harm or offense. Of course, this isn’t to say we are perfect in our language, merely that we are admitted access to trending phrases as they're being determined in real time.
I’ve written recently about the small ways in which these changes can show up in our everyday lives — using pronouns in email signatures, substituting “equity” for “diversity” in our bid to ensure justice, etc. But I didn’t do a fair job at explaining why these small changes are so important. My assumptions of my audience created a gap in my work, and I’m going to take the rest of this column to try and rectify the error with an example.
Last week, two well known celebrities died by suicide — Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both iconic artists in their own fields. While I’d love to dedicate this column as a love note to that ropy-armed punk chef, it’s more appropriate for me to talk about the coverage of their deaths. You’ll notice I used a phrase in the first sentence that might read a little less fluidly than the one you’re most used to seeing, “committed suicide.”
There’s a reason for that.
The word “commit” implies that a sin or a crime has taken place, a morally questionable action. When it comes to suicide, which is neither a sin nor a crime, the public health world, as well as the Associated Press, have come to a consensus that using “death by suicide” reduces the stigma surrounding those with suicidal thoughts or actions. There is a also a level of dignity imparted to those who have died by suicide, and in the chaotic media coverage of deaths by suicide, dignity is sorely lacking.
Kate Spade’s alleged method of suicide was disclosed early by less judicious media outlets. Unfortunately, we know that suicide ideation (thinking about suicide) increases in vulnerable populations when graphic descriptions of deaths by suicide are shared. It’s one of the arguments against the show 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix show that depicts a graphic portrayal of a suicide and sexual assault, and is highly rated by the very teens it might harm. It’s not important for the public to know how Kate Spade died, but it important to discuss why.
More importantly, the way we frame conversations about those who have died by suicide is a contortionist act in balancing accolades with truth. We remember people as bright shining stars, perfect in their contributions, rather than speaking frankly about their mental health, of their loneliness. This is a disservice to the deceased, and to the living. We must carry the burden of emotional pain by speaking honestly about our own mental health challenges, and the humanity of our shared grief.
But we must also choose the way we speak about these deeply human feelings in a way that does no further harm. The small act of changing a singular phrase might seem pointless, like I’m asking you to blow out the candle while the house is on fire, but it isn’t. Words matter. The ways in which we speak about ourselves and our loved ones (and our nemesis) matter. Please take care of yourself and others by choosing your words carefully.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.